Former defense secretary Robert Gates is out defending his tell-all book to all comers this week, gamely strapped into a neck brace that holds his head high and straight ahead. He broke a vertebra in his neck after falling at home a couple of weeks ago, and that appears to have restricted his peripheral vision. It makes for an apt metaphor: the smoke his book—Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War—has sent billowing across official Washington and the U.S. military masks the fire between the lines that fill his 640 pages.
The timing couldn’t be better for the book, which is being officially released Tuesday. It comes out as the Iraqi government draws up battle plans for retaking Fallujah from Sunni insurgents. That’s the western Iraqi city that nearly 100 U.S. troops died freeing from those insurgents, or their allies, less than a decade ago. The confrontation comes as the Obama Administration grows frustrated with the government of Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai is delaying a pact between the two nations that would keep U.S. troops on the ground there after this year.
The three lengthiest wars in recent U.S. history are Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. There are growing concerns in the Pentagon and beyond that the last pair will end up like the first one. Gates, who served presidents Bush and Obama at the Pentagon from 2006 to 2011, doesn’t focus on the logic of going to war, so much as he does on fighting it once the balloon had gone up:
“…if I had learned one useful lesson from Iraq, it was that progress depended on security for much of the population…I continue to believe that the troop increase that Obama boldly approved [for Afghanistan] in late 2009 was the right decision—providing sufficient forces to break the stalemate on the ground, rooting the Taliban out of their strongholds while training a much larger and more capable Afghan army.”
Granted, Gates wrote that well before Fallujah fell. But the real debate here isn’t between two honorable leaders trying to figure out the best way forward in wartime. It’s between their different yardsticks. Gates, it seems, honed tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan: more troops are better. Obama—perhaps driven more by political necessity—kept his eye on strategic aims: can the U.S. build something that will endure after the GIs have left? Can Washington do it on the backs of allies—in both Kabul and Baghdad—that seem all to willing to spurn U.S. assistance now that the Americans have helped install their kleptocracies?
The issue in these kinds of wars is never can the U.S. win? The issue always is can the U.S. win at a price the country is willing to pay? An elected President—especially one who didn’t initiate the war in question—is generally a better barometer of the nation’s political will than an appointed (or re-appointed) functionary. That’s how democracies are supposed to work.
But democracies are terrible at waging lengthy, inconclusive wars. The adrenaline jolt that was 9/11 paved the way for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but it failed to do the same for Iraq. And the American public’s interest—which translates into will—was flagging in both conflicts after a couple of years. (Yet Americans—still shamed over how they treated Vietnam-era vets—love their soldiers, even if they’re not crazy about their war. This past weekend, for example, the movie Lone Survivor was the top earner at the nation’s box offices. The New York Times pronounced the real-life tale of U.S. troops fighting the Taliban in the Afghan mountains a “surprise hit” in light of its popularity “in heartland states.”)
“By the end of this year we will have completed combat operations in Afghanistan,” President Obama said Monday in his first public comment on Gates’ book. “War is never easy…I want to emphasize that during his tenure here, Secretary Gates was an outstanding secretary of defense, a good friend of mine and I’ll always be grateful for his service.”
The nation has long been, as it should be, ambivalent about going to war. The evolving Obama-Gates relationship reflects that tension. The problem comes when those who express doubts about military action are viewed as wimps. “If there were an outright threat to the United States or to our interests or our allies, I would be the first in line to argue for the use of military force,” Gates told NPR Monday, in an apparent reference to his reluctance to intervene militarily in Libya during his final months at the Pentagon helm. “It just seemed to me that some of the areas where we were looking at potential conflict were more in the category of wars of choice.”
The latest bad turn in Fallujah isn’t as much about the insurgents as it is the U.S.-installed Iraqi government. “Whatever his intentions, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has not effectively integrated Sunni tribal groups into the Iraqi government,” writes Brian Fishman of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. “Good governance, including effective law enforcement and intelligence work, is the only way to eliminate a terrorist organization, and that does not seem likely in Iraq any time soon.”
In fact, military expert Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote Monday that the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents now in control of much of Fallujah, and elsewhere in Anbar province, aren’t the only challenge to Iraq’s future. “Bad as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is, far too much of the evidence points to Prime Minister Maliki as an equal threat to Iraq and to U.S. interests,” he says. “Any analysis or news report that focuses only on al-Qaeda’s very real abuses is little more than worthless—it encourages the tendency to demonize terrorism without dealing with the fact that terrorism almost always only succeeds when governments fail their people.”
Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who takes a dim view of current U.S. national security policies, suggests that the nation has simply forgotten how to win wars. “The truth is something few people in the national-security establishment are willing to confront: confusing capability with utility, the United States knows how to start wars but has seemingly forgotten how to conclude them,” the Boston University professor wrote Sunday in the Los Angeles Times. “Fundamentally, a pronounced infatuation with armed might has led senior civilian officials, regardless of party, and senior military leaders, regardless of service, to misunderstand and misapply the military instrument. Force is good for some things, preeminently for defending what is already yours. Not content to defend, however, the United States in recent decades has sought to use force to extend its influence, control and values.”
Duty is Gates’ second memoir of his time in government. His first, 1996’s From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War, details his time at the CIA and as a member of the White House staff. Under his contract with publisher Knopf, Gates has to write another book. That volume “will focus on Gates’ philosophy about leadership, his views about great leaders he has admired, and his thoughts about effective leadership, even in the face of adversity and difficulty,” Knopf has said. It would be fascinating to read more about Gates’ sense of the whys, and less on the ways, of war, the third time around. He could call it Choosing Wars of Choice.